Saturday, 19 August 2023


Another Spotify playlist now up for your amusement and delicitation. With a suitable illo from Mexican printmaker Jose Guadalupe Posada. They’re developing more and more of a death theme, it seems. Well, that’s life. 

John Cale: If You Were Still Around
Mclusky: Whiteliberalonwhiteliberalaction
Ewan MacColl & Peggy Seeger: Aikendrum
Tunng: These Winds
Judy Dunlop + Ashley Hutchings: The Oak
Richard & Linda Thompson: Beat The Retreat
Bert Jansch: Poison
R.E.M.: Old Man Kensey
Robert Plant: Monkey
PJ Harvey: The Glorious Land
The Angels Of Light: Sunset Park
CAN: Soul Desert
The Waterboys: Medicine Jack
Julian Cope: Ain’t No Gettin' Round Gettin' Round
Faust: Tell The Bitch To Go Home

"Well here's the truth about Medicine Jack,
He painted his face and his whole shack black,
He went up in the woods and he never came back,
He must have got too close to the railroad track."

See y’all sometime in September…

Saturday, 12 August 2023


(The final instalment of Pariah Elites. Beware, prehistoric PLOT SPOILERS lie below!)

“Here is a picture. Someone is - other. Not one of the people.”

Seeing The Picture

William Golding always cited his second novel, ’The Inheritors’, (1955) as his favourite, even it it never achieved the recognition awarded its predecessor ’Lord Of the Flies’. It’s centred on the people, a pre-human group from stone age times. And tells of their encounter with the new people, modern humans. Now surely such a thing cannot belong in a series on pariah elites, alongside van Vogt potboilers? Don’t be so fast…

Its distinction is to be written not just from the perspective of the people, but in an approximation of the language they would have used. Or, as Golding’s daughter Judy more accurately put it: “my father uses our language to show the lives of people who don’t really have it.” And accordingly every sentence, whether prose or dialogue, deepens our understanding of the people.

The language is therefore simple and direct, at points almost reading like stage directions. But still with something evocative to it:

“The red creature turned to the right and trotted slowly towards the far end of the terrace. Water was cascading down the rocks beyond the terrace from the melting ice in the mountains. The river was high and flat and drowned the edge of the terrace.”

And they speak so simply and directly, of course, because they lead a simple and direct life, chiefly based around foraging.

“Life was fulfilled, there was no need to look farther for food, to-morrow was secure and the day after that was so remote that no one would bother to think of it.”

Their perspective is in many ways child-like, including ascribing sentience to objects if they’re seen moving.

“The water was not awake like the river or the fall but asleep, spreading there to the river and waking up.”

But the best-known aspect of this is their communicating via ‘pictures’, as in their phrase “I see/ do not see that picture.” This suggests two things, that they have not ventured far into abstract thought, and that idea and memory are not separated. Stuck with a problem they assume it must have been encountered before, so the answer will lie in the past. While “this is a new thing” is said like a curse. Though we casually use phrases such as “I see what you mean”, there is something transportive about this. I first heard it decades ago, in a TV documentary on Golding, and found it has remained in my head ever since.

At the same time, their other senses are so acute they are described as having their own autonomy. For example, Lok’s feet are “clever” in dodging obstacles as he runs, while at another point “Lok’s ears spoke to Lok” but he doesn’t hear them as he’s asleep. They follow a trail less by visual clues than by scent, and can become so locked into the task their other senses barely register with them.

And speaking of Lok… His name is literally the first word of the novel and we stay with him right up until the penultimate chapter. The slowest-witted of the adult people, often in a state of “obedient dumbness”, he therefore becomes an unreliable narrator. Events are described through him faithfully but not always comprehendingly. We’re often required to read past his words to understand what’s actually going on. At points, others in the group are required to explain to him, and thereby us, what’s really happening.

But also, what he doesn’t perceive is as important as what he does. For example, when he first sees the new people he assumes they have “bone faces”. Which turns out to be their skin, but in the hitherto unfamiliar shade of white.

He hears the new people’s chatter, of course incomprehensible to him. But he continues to assume they can understand him. And he’s similarly unable to comprehend their hostility, like a schoolboy unable to take in that he’s being bullied, let alone do something about it. When they fire an arrow at him, he first assumes they must be sending him a gift.

But let’s ask an awkward question. If written through him so comprehensively, why isn’t it written as if by him, in the first person? Instead the novel opens more cinematically, the members of the tribe as brought into view one by one as they enter a setting. And at this point, emotions are given visual indicators. (“The grin faded and his mouth opened till the lower lip hung down.”) Though internal states do creep in as it progresses. (“Quite suddenly he was swept up by a tide of happiness and exultation.”)

The answer is this novel can’t be too centred on an individual, because it’s about a collective. Lok would not have seen himself as a discrete being, but as a part of the people. In one passage, heading on an errand, he looks back on the rest of the group from a vantage point where he’s no longer visible to them:

“All at once Lok was frightened because she had not seen him. The old woman knew so much; yet she had not seen him. He was cut off and no longer one of the people; as though his communion with the other had changed him. He was different from them and they could not see him. He had no words to formulate these thoughts but he felt his difference and invisibility as a cold wind that blew on his skin.”

And this is not in reaction to being lost or exiled, just temporarily separate. Later when he first sees the others he recoils into the comforting sense of being one of the people:

“They came in, closer and closer, not as they would come into the overhang, recognising home and being free of the whole space; they drove in until they were being joined to him, body to body. They shared a body as they shared a picture. Lok was safe.”

Then, right at the end of the novel, one section switches over to impersonal narration. For the first time we see Lok rather than see through him. (“A strange creature, smallish and bowed.”) At this point he’s the only one of his people left, bar a stolen baby. And, as he cannot exist alone, he’s effectively already dead. He’s described objectively because he’s become an object. When the root they’ve made the totem of their deity, Oa, is described simply as a tree root its heartbreaking, but heartbreaking precisely because its an unarguable truth.

There’s a section in Wyndham’s ’Day Of the Triffids’ (1951) which parallels this:

“The prisoner and the cenobite are aware that the herd exists beyond their exile; they are an aspect of it. But when the herd no longer exists there is, for the herd creature, no longer entity. He is a part of no whole: a freak without a place…no more than the twitch in the limb of a corpse.”

This communion also manifests in a profound empathy. When the old man of the group falls in the freezing river “the group of people crouched round Mal and shared his shivers.” They’re doing more than warming him with their body heat. They see no particular distinction from if they had fallen into the river. ‘An injury to one is an injury to all’ isn’t a credo to aspire to, it’s a functional feature of their lives.

Their ‘telepathy’ must be seen as stemming from here. Though that’s the term commonly used by commentators, and it would best suit this series, I’m not sure it’s quite right. Certainly not in the sense of a phoneless phone call. There’s a sense shared between them which is a combination of suggestibility and empathy. They share the same experiences which frame their thought, so share much the same thought, so can project their ‘pictures’ between brows. And the suggestion can travel because it is non-verbal, akin to the way a simple phrase can get communicated across a bad connection.

And what’s crucial here is that the people do not lose something nebulous such as ‘innocence’, even if that’s how the book is often described. They lose tangible things, a group bond and a perspective on the world perhaps beyond what we can imagine.

None of this is to suggest they lack individuality, or fail to see any sense of it in each other. Fa is clearly more acute than Lok. She not only works out before him the threat the new people pose, she hides from him her own realisation that they’ve killed a child. It’s that they don’t see the significance in individuality that we do.

The people are in an interchange between tribe and family group, from grandparents/elders down to infants. This was perhaps partly to make the cast list manageable, and partly to make them more sympathetic to Fifties audiences. (Golding’s daughter has suggested they were based on his own family.) Lineage is an unimportant question to them, subservient to if not overridden by the sense they are the people. Inferred from his actions, Liku must be Lok’s child, but he never refers to her as such.

Are We the Baddies?

How accurate is any of this? Golding seems to have told different tales over the years about the level of research he did. But we know he wrote the book quickly, and in the covering note originally sent to his publisher he confessed to doing little. Most likely, he simply relied on the knowledge he’d already absorbed and concentrated on writing.

I’ve done no great deal of research either, but some seems solid enough. Contrary to a common error, the people are nomadic rather than itinerant. As the novel opens they’re travelling from their winter to their summer quarters, and on reaching there act like coming home. It’s explained in some detail how they’re able to harvest fire but not make it, so carefully carry embers around with them embedded in clay.

We also discover they see it as sinful to hunt and kill, but acceptable to snatch already-dead prey from predators. Yet not only do we now know Neanderthals hunted, I’d not sure this mode of subsistence has existed anywhere. (Please correct me in the comments if I’m wrong!)

In Golding’s day it was still accepted that Neanderthals lacked the culture and communication skills of the Cro-Magnons, and so were if not eliminated then out-competed by their more innovative cousins. The discoveries of subsequent years have not exactly been kind to these easy notions. It would seem truer to say they did things differently, rather than not at all.

But then again, was this written as an exercise in scholarly accuracy? I do not see that picture. The Bible story of Cain slaying Abel is a kind of secondary Fall myth, where man turned against man and so became marked forever. It’s often regarded now as a mythologised retelling of hunting versus farming. This could be seen the same way, save that the stages represented are hunting versus gathering. We are better off reading it as a myth or fable than as a history of pre-history.

So it doesn’t make much literal sense that Lok looks uncomprehendingly upon the new people bonking, when he’s almost certainly a father himself. Or that the new people are white, when as more recent arrivals from Africa they’d more likely have been darker skinned than the natives. But this is a work of fiction, which affects us via symbols. Lok looks upon the new people as a child would upon adults. And the new people need to remind us of us, at a time when Golding’s readers would have been almost entirely white. So white they are.

How many times have you seen this trope in films? An exploratory mission is crossing a landscape, which seems devoid of life but turns out to contain hostile natives. The camera pans to their narrowed eyes, peering sinisterly from behind foliage. Golding reverses this, keeping the Cro-Magnons at a distance for almost the first half of the book. It progresses almost schematically, we see them first as distant murky shapes, very slowly getting closer to them. A whole chapter is given over to Lok and Fa observing their camp from hiding, literally reversing the standard perspective.

And their lurking at the periphery of the people’s vision is highly effective dramatically. This book is as compelling a read as anything else in this series, despite the relative lack of gaudy pulp covers, rocket ships and missile strikes.

The new people are compared to “when the fire flew away and ate up all the trees,” a collective trauma. But everyone instinctively runs from a fire, while they have something compelling about them. At one point Lok finds a flagon of their beer. Fa warns him off it, but he feels compelled to drink. “It was a bee-water, smelling of honey and wax and decay, it drew toward and repelled, it frightened and excited like the people themselves.” Soon, intoxicated by it, he cries out he now is the new people. It’s like Pandora’s Box as a liquid.

But of course all this raises the further question - why would we need such a fall myth be told? Despite what almost every writer in this series has assumed, evolution is not about linear progress but branching. Following one branch precludes the others, but that doesn’t make one branch objectively better.

In which case, why does this persist? Why, if that ’out-competed’ theory about the Neanderthals was so baseless, was it so widespread for so long? Of course, because people wanted it to be true. A capitalist society will forever try to divide us up into two groups, the entrepreneurs and forward thinkers versus the passive non-adaptors, who need to be dragged along the march of progress. (As one example, in Britain the Tories currently favour the term “the blob” for any and all of their adversaries, with its connotations of an inert blocking mass.) It seems to make sense to us, and so we project it back through time.

We serve ourselves up a fait accompli. The Cro-Magnons must surely have been innovators because they survived to become us. The Neanderthals cannot have been, because they died out. It’s a cross between doing down the neighbours and dissing the dead, in order to big ourselves up. And, in so doing, bestowing upon us an abundance of the things we regard as important.

So stone age dramas most commonly become a version of the Robinson Crusoe myth. They set brutishness up against an embryonic form of civilisation, smarts trumping strength, as if this was the era we struggled to rid ourselves of alternately our childhood or our ‘animal-ness’. (With the two often lazily elided together.)

As Susan Mandala has said: “Scientific and fictional accounts of human evolution share the same basic structure and elements as fairy tales, with humans emerging as transcendent after overcoming a series of obstacles.”

Meanwhile, over the other side of the fence, I have sometimes been treated to a hippie theory that spiritual, creative people (such as the Irish) were descended from Neanderthals and grasping, possessive types (aka the English) from Cro-Magnons. You may already be able to guess how accurate that is. As so often, the supposedly ‘alternative’ theory retains the mainstream concepts while somehow trying to invert the value system between them.

Golding is not, of course, as foolish as that. The people don’t lead some Edenic life, but one periodically plagued by hunger. Fa, the brains of the outfit, is firmly told to stop having ideas because girls don’t do that sort of thing. But like the hippies he retains the concepts. Except in his case he asks what downside those advances might have brought with them, and devises a scenario which best demonstrates his concerns.

The people live as part of the landscape. Lok’s reaction to returning to their summer camp is: “The river had not gone away either or the mountains. The overhang had waited for them. Everything had waited for them; Oa had waited for them. Even now she was pushing up the spikes of the bulbs, fattening the grubs, reeking the smells out of the earth, bulging the fat buds out of every crevice and bough.”

While the new people impose themselves upon the landscape, chopping down trees, broadening paths to carry their canoes. Tools become cursed objects, functionally useful but separating their wielder from the world, imposing upon them a utilitarian mindset. What makes them more civilised also makes them more savage. (Disclaimer: the people will use rocks and sticks as tools, in an impromptu manner, but do little to fashion them and don’t hang on to them after their immediate function is served. The only exception seems to be the thorn bushes they hold onto as defensive weapons.)

Ellethinks saw the distinctive thing about the new people as their use of abstract language, focusing on a scene where their onset stimulates linguistic concepts even in Lok. (And, though she doesn’t say so, to a greater degree in the smarter Fa, who’s able to devise a pincer assault on the new people.) This is a valuable point, but in itself insufficient. There must have been a means by which the new people were able to develop this enhanced language, it can’t by itself have instigated their difference from the people. It must be effect, not cause.

The final chapter switches to follow Tuami, one of the new people. They have taken the people’s baby. (Though I don’t think it was known then that Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals interbred.) He whittles at a knife he is making, whose handle will be half of the baby and half one of his own people. When it’s finished he intends to kill the group leader and usurp his role. The last line is “he could not see if the line of darkness had an ending.”

The Yesterday People

So to return to the initial question, does this belong? There’s one obvious similarity to other Pariah Elite novels. If in varying degrees, they try to capture in prose how the world would look to a differently working mind. But that’s a partial likeness at best. And Golding’s pessimism seems entirely at odds with the teleological optimism of something like ’The Tomorrow People’. 

And yet for all that they’re remarkably similar. Not just in their nascent form of telepathy, but their collective identity (that shared use of “people” is scarcely a co-incidence) which is enough of an erosion of the self/other distinction to turn them from violence. Andrew Rilstone smartly said that for all their jaunting and telekinesis “the Tomorrow People's main power is that they are nice.”

’The Tomorrow People’ portrays us in a state of becoming, for the nice will inherit the earth. While the people are effectively the Yesterday People, the last of the nice. But Golding’s pessimism isn’t absolute. He doesn’t say the line of darkness had no ending, only that Tuami could not at that point see it. The knife he makes is dualistic, and Neanderthal DNA still lies within us. We may see that picture yet.

Saturday, 5 August 2023


(The latest in our look at Pariah Elites in fiction. Again with PLOT SPOILERS. First instalment here.
 Full list here.)

“Who are these children? There’s something about the way they look at one with those curious eyes. They are - strangers, you know.”

”In Arcadian Indistinction”

So John Wyndham wrote ‘The Chrysalids’, a commentary on the generation gap via the metaphor of psi powers. Which could be summed up a one-nil to youth. But, fifty-two when this was published and not necessarily down with the kids, he essentially played out the scenario again - and in reverse. ’The Midwich Cuckoos’ (1957) was to take on the perspective of the parents.

Should you not know the plot… everyone in the rustic village of Midwich is struck asleep at once. And when they awake, all the women have become pregnant. (Even the virgins, in what cannot feel other than a twist on immaculate conception.) And the children they carry turn out to be cuckoo-like aliens, sporting.. you may be ahead here… enhanced mental powers. If 'The Chrysalids’ could be reduced to the line “they cannot tolerate our rise”, this would be ‘Adults come from Earth, children from Venus.’

Brecht’s plays ‘He Who Says Yes’ and ‘He Who Says No’ (both 1930) rehearse twin arguments, whether a child should or should not be left behind for the greater good. But he rigs the odds each time, introducing different criteria which determine each of the courses of action, undermining any actual comparisons. And this is essentially what Wyndham does in these two books.

(I rather like the idea of two novels looking at the same events, one from one side’s perspective, the other from the norms. As if such divergent views couldn’t be contained within one cover. But that’s not at all what Wyndham has done.)

First and most obviously, we have the change in setting to ’The Chrysalids’ - back to more familiar territory in about every way. As we’ve looked at before on this blog, as one of the first countries to urbanise Britain developed a culture which venerated rural life. More than Big Ben or Saint Pauls, the Post Office and the bicycled bobby were our symbols. Wartime films such as ’Went The Day Well?’ (1942) showed rustic villages being taken over by foreign invaders not as some staging-post to London, but as if the heart of the nation was already seized.

And Wyndham does something similar with his more alien disturbing of Midwich’s restive calm. The first chapter reads like one of those spotters’ guides to English villages, pointing out the age of the apse in the local Church, so beloved to my parents. (He wrote much of the novel in the Hampshire village of Steep, as if gazing out the window for location information. The nearby, and similar-sounding, Midhurst has also been suggested as a source.)

Had none of the events in ’The Chrysalids’ happened, it would still have been a dystopia. Not just for the powered children, objectively a dystopia. Instead it’s their telepathy which offers a route out of the situation. Whereas, had none of the events in ’Midwich Cuckoos’ happened, had none of the Children arrived, English villagers would have led lives of, in Wyndham’s phrase, “Arcadian indistinction”.

Murray Ewing describes Wyndham’s writing style as “analgesic”. But its in Midwich where he goes into analgesic overdrive. The horror of the situation doesn’t rear up, it creeps up on you, slowly and remorselessly.

’Day of The Triffids’ had a weight of backstory to convey, but front loaded action before filling us in. This book devotes much time to explaining what happened in Midwich before the incident, which boil down to “nothing much”. Which may lay it on a little. The first six chapters, the first quarter of the book, tellingly have Midwich in their name. And only in the last of these do the mass pregnancies even happen. Though, inevitably, we now know what comes next and are in a hurry to get there. Wyndham’s intended reader didn’t, and so quite possibly wasn’t.

Further, ’Triffids’ stuck rigidly to its narrator’s perspective. For around half the book, he’s trying to find his love interest and we don’t know where she is because he doesn’t. ’Chrysalids’ isn’t so rigid because of the telepathy conceit, but has times when other characters fall out of contact with the narrator.

This book has a first-person narrator too. But there’s whole chapters he’s not present for, sections which go on so long you forget about him until he’s back. (There’s a brief ‘explanation’ he’s recounting events he was told of later.) At times, you’d be forgiven for thinking his presence was some sort of contractual obligation, which only required honouring formally.

Why the difference? If narrated by a Midwich local, this book has the village’s voice. Because this is not one person’s story, its the village’s story. With the assumption Midwich stands for the Home Counties, which stand for England, which stand for Britain. While we may react with derision to such a notion now, readers at the time would have taken this for granted. And its done because this is a story about our species encountering another. There needs to be a way this is conveyed collectively.

But things are taken further than that, and for their own reasons…

Mostly, one character relays events to some of the others, which they then discuss which something not far from philosophical detachment. Throughout, events occur at a distance - reported on, or sometimes elided over. Both ’Triffids’ and ’Chrysalids’ are rip-roaring action-adventures by comparison.

Advice is dispatched by Zellaby, some sort of public intellectual, the pipe-puffing equivalent of Dr. Vorless from ’Triffids’. (It’s surprising how many relate him to Coker, it’s definitely Vorless.) However, Vorless’ authority is effectively conveyed by his only appearing once, giving us our instructions and going. Whereas here its not the narrator but Zellaby’s perspective which dominates, which is of interested, detached contemplation But as we see him through the narrator this distances him further. We’re told: “as so often with Zellaby, the gap between theory and practical circumstances seemed too inadequately bridged.”

To use a term Graham Greene was fond of, this is a story of an involvement. The whole book can often feel like one of his many discourses, speculating and ruminating. At first he sees the changed Children purely as a fascinating object for study. But in the end… quite literally at the end he has to take himself out of his former existence, pontificating in studies before the dinner gong goes off, and get to grips with events. From thought to deed.

But Won’t Somebody Please Worry About the Children?

Zellaby is given to saying such things as “the desirability of intermittent periods of social rigidity for the purpose of curbing the subversive energies of a new generation.” Presumably to be brought about by the power of polysllabery alone. Or, at another point…

“The true fruit of this century has little interest in coming to living-terms with innovations; it just greedily grabs them all as they come along. Only when it encounters something really big does it become aware of a social problem at all, and then, rather than make concessions, it yammers for the impossibly easy way out, uninvention, suppression - as in the matter of The Bomb.”

(And we should note all of this gets settled by means of a bomb.)

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was formed the year this book was published. And Midwich’s, and therefore the novel’s, resident intellectual is here to tell us how foolish the demands of those ban-the-bombers are. Though to be clear, they aren’t being compared to the Children. Instead, they’re part of the problem the Children are able to exploit. Lives of post-war ease and comfort have left them ill-equipped for this struggle.

Why this desire to dunk on the new generation? One barometer of this would be the increase in higher education. Though the rise would curve up more steeply in the Sixties, the trend had already begun. And higher education offered youth something much closer to a space of their own than the parental home or workplace. The era where your children simply grew to replace you as you wore out, new parts to be slipped in the same mechanism, that was was coming to a close.

As an example, compare a still from the film (more of which anon) to another teacher-and-pupil image, from ’An Unearthly Child’, the first ever episode of ’Doctor Who’. About which I once said: “The focus is less on Susan than the fascination she exerts over her teachers… [they] stand behind, looking to her. But she gazes out of the frame as if it’s a world which doesn’t contain her… expression inscrutable.” (As also said at the time, her mystery is beguiling not threatening, a significant difference. But the similarity between the images is still striking.)

While one Penguin cover frames a single Child in the foreground, again looking away from his environment, in the all-black outfit stereotypical to Beatniks.

However, as with van Vogt’s slans, the Children develop faster than regular kids and so are of indeterminate age. In some, this leads to a tendency to take their oldest age and go into moral panics about the teenager, juvenile delinquency and so on. But this tendency shouldn’t be over-indulged. Much of the book is about the disturbing effect of them being simultaneously the Children and regular children.

Some themes are era-specific, others universal. And for something that’s universal, try this. You have a child. You created them from yourself, and yet they’re someone else. They arrive as a stranger to you. You cannot simply impose your will on them like they’re a remote limb of yours. Changeling stories unsurprisingly go back into folklore. (And get referenced here.)

Yet, as is often, this universal theme had an era-specific context. Dr. Spock’s manual ’Baby and Child Care’ had been influential on post-war attitudes. He asked parents to take their cues from children rather than impose a routine on them, ‘demand feeding’ becoming almost a byword for his school of thought. This was based on the idea that a child’s actions should be seen as natural and normal. And the inevitable phobia which came from this reassuring voice was an ‘otherly’ child, who was not and could not be explicable to you.

And yet who is missing from this perspective? Who is definitely not detached, and from the off?

“It’s all very well for a man. He doesn’t have to go through this sort of thing, and he knows he never will have to. How can he understand? He may mean as well as a saint, but he’s always on the outside. He can never know what it’s like, even in a normal way - so what sort of an idea can he have of this? - Of how it feels to like awake at night with the humiliating knowledge that one is simply being used? - As if one were not a person at all, but just a kind of mechanism, a sort of incubator…. And then to go on wondering… what, just what it may be that one is being forced to incubate. Of course you can’t understand how that feels - how could you? It’s degrading, it’s intolerable. I shall crack soon. I know I shall.”

Which seems so central to the main conceit that surely the whole thing would have been much more effective if our central character had been a woman. Yet of course here this is effectively a short-term plot obstacle, an attack of the vapours by Zellaby’s wife, to be overcome by reassuring male voices. And - par for the course - even this isn’t actually said by a woman, it’s Zellaby reporting his wife’s words.

The narrator has a wife too, but she is un-induced due to a plot device. While the child of Zellaby’s wife, despite the outburst above, turns out to be normal. His daughter does have a changed child, but he succeeds in sending her away from Midwich and thereby out of the novel. In short Wyndham seems to signpost this road, then baulk at the prospect and instead detour around it. So if analysts don’t seem to talk about this theme much, its submerged in the book itself.

”The Eyes That Shine"

The book was the first work of Wyndham’s to be filmed, in 1960. A film about as successful as the later adaptation of ’Triffids' was a failure. But that success may have led to it over-imprinting itself on the book in our minds. One edition used a film still on the cover, not something ever done with ’Triffids’. (And yes, it’s the image we looked at earlier.)

In general the differences are effectively conveyed by the change in title, to ’Village of the Damned’. The film’s much more dramatic and suspenseful, a streamlining of the sometimes languid novel. And if that sounds like a good thing, it probably is. It demonstrates how much of the book can be cut without losing anything essential, how much the analgesia was over-applied. The problem is, the film’s success is largely on its own terms.

Google Image ‘Village of the Damned 1960’ (to cut out the later version) and what dominates is those malevolent glowing eyes, lighting up whenever the Children use their sinister powers. The trailer opened with them and they were spelt out on the film poster. (“Beware the stare that will paralyse the will of the world!”)

In the book, in a not unusual motif, their strangeness also lies in their eyes. Yet in a characteristically quieter way, their eyes don’t light up but their irises are gold. (There are perhaps two phrases from the book which the film built on - “they had a quality of glowing gold” and “The… boy turned, and looked at us. His golden eyes were hard, and bright.”) Yet this film invention is present on almost all the later book covers. Only the 2000 Penguin edition keeps to the gold original.

Further, in the book they look alike. Not similar, not even like identical twins, more like clones, unrecognisable even by their birth mothers. There’s way more of them than in the film, in fact there’s fifty-eight. It becomes evident they share one mind. (“It will not be an individual who answers me, or performs what I ask, it will be an item of the group.”)

They mostly wander Midwich in an undifferentiated mass, neither spoken to by nor speaking to anyone. Direct, sustained conversation with them doesn’t happen until more than two-thirds in. (And they influence us with a thought. Why would they bother to talk to us much?) And when they do speak they neither try to conceal their nature, not exult in their success. (“He spoke simply, and without innuendo, as one stating a fact.”)

The film may well improve things by upping the stakes in giving Zellaby a changed son of his own. Amusingly called David, the same as the lead in ’The Chrysalids’. (Though most likely only by coincidence.) Yet this takes away even as it gives, assigning the Children a natural leader and spokesman, undercutting their collective otherness.

And if the dominant image of the film is the shiny eyes, the best-known scene is the final showdown - with the “I-must-think-of-a-brick-wall” business. Zellaby first wishes to break through the wall surrounding their minds and ends up building one to defend his own, his character arc in microcosm. (Its the briefcase, badge of his academic authority, that conceals the bomb.)

But this is played entirely differently in the book. There, as the narrator phrases it, the Children become children again, trustingly carrying in what they believe is part of his film projector equipment. It becomes almost a variant of the “could you kill baby Hitler?” quandary.

A dog reacts against baby David, as animals would in the later and more clear-cut horror ’The Omen’ (1976). Some versions of the film poster called them “Child-demons”. We’re explicitly told, in a actual dialogue quote, “these children are bad.” While Wyndham said, in a 1960 BBC interview, “they aren’t so evil in the original story”.

In the film the children are invaders, if with a slightly different strategy to the usual march across Westminster Bridge. But in the book they have less a strategy than an assumption - their superiority and therefore their success are taken as self-evident, they just need to await victory. And in this way the parallels actually function, they are like ’The Chrysalids’, in particular the Sealand woman who said “we cannot tolerate their obstruction”. As they say…

“This is not a civilised matter, it is a primitive matter. If we exist, we shall dominate you — that is clear and inevitable. Will you agree to be superseded, and start on the way to extinction without a struggle?”

While Zellaby comes to understand…

“We, like the other lords of creation before us, will one day be replaced. There are two ways in which it can happen: either through ourselves, by our self-destruction, or by the incursion of some species which we lack the equipment to subdue. Well, here we are now.”

The triffids may gesture towards weird fiction. Their way of being is wholly incomprehensible to us, even as they’re garden plants come to get us. While the Children, however strange and however powerful, have more explicable motivations. While still infants they punish their parents for accidentally harming them, ascribing motive to happenstance as children will. (One mother accidentally jabs her child with a safety pin while changing him, and he causes her to repeatedly jab her own arm.)

Even when older, they tolerate us insofar as we don’t get in their way. They stretch our terms of reference, but they don’t lie wholly outside of them. And this is necessary for the theme of evolution to apply. The Children come next after us.

Evolution was Wyndham’s theme, running (as we’ve seen) through all three of his main books. And there’s an odd paradox at the heart of this, for this “primitive matter” is simultaneously about who is the most evolved. In one sense, cosy Midwich is too evolved to deal with the problem of the Children, in that it’s too removed from the harsh imperatives of life. With nothing to threaten us, we’ve grown languid. The Children arrive to reassert the law of the jungle. (And Midwich’s civility is specifically posed as the problem. Children colonies are set up elsewhere but, foreign being a less well-behaved place, they’re soon wiped out.)

And yet at the same time the Children are more evolved. Evolution is an advance, and they look down at us norms from the next step up the ladder. And yet (again), at the immediate level evolution presents itself as a kind of trial by combat, victors surviving from one day to the next. Evolution is simultaneously a gladiatorial contest, decided in the cut-and-thrust of the arena, and a foregone conclusion.

Notably, both notions are widely considered part of evolution. Yet they’re pretty close to mutually exclusive. What’s more, if the first is true then the Children’s rise is inevitable. It would be like asking about the outcome of a knife fight where one brings a sharpened stone and the other a long-range missile. (And note Zellaby’s arc is not despair at the impossibility of resisting such a powerful foe, it’s about accepting his involvement in the battle of survival.)

Yet if Wyndham was aware of this paradox, there’s no sign of it in the book. His theme is the effect of evolution on popular culture. Yet by definition that means the effect of popular notions of evolution. The fears and dreams it led to didn’t come from it, at least not directly, they were fears and dreams we conjured up ourselves then assigned to it.

And speaking of winners and loser of evolution… well more of that in our final instalment…

Saturday, 29 July 2023


(Another look at Pariah Elites, with more PLOT SPOILERS.)

”Blessed is the norm! Watch thou for the mutant!”

Deviation and Progress 

Brian Aldiss, not always Wyndham’s greatest fan, described ’The Chrysalids’ (1955) as his best book. About which he may well be right. But in a more unarguable point, it’s about a pariah elite possessed of mutant powers. So it fits into our series like a six-fingered glove. (See here for list so far.)

Then on the other hand... The original Penguin version of his breakthrough novel, ’Day of the Triffids’, had described it as “a modified version of what is unhappily known as ‘science fiction’,” his earlier career in American pulps politely elided over. For his writings were now aimed squarely at the regular reader. Which means what has been our standard model, that mutant powers act as a metaphor to big up science fiction fans’ self-image, no longer applies.

But that other hand may be six-fingered too. It only needs a little tweaking…

As we saw last time, ’Day of the Triffids’ essentially came from the culture of the Forties, even if it was published early in the next decade. But much of what makes a good popular writer is the ability to act as an antennae for the zeitgeizt. And this mid-Fifties book, conversely, looked forwards. If van Vogt’s credo was in essence “fans are slans” (even if he didn’t devise that phrase himself), Wyndham’s is “kids become butterflies, adults just stay grubs”.

The conceit is similar enough to ‘The Tomorrow People’ for two different covers to use the same splayed-hand image as it had in its opening credits. But when that specified puberty as the point your powers manifested, here its a more general youth. And that wider range makes it a coming-of-age story. Powers increase with age and, significantly, its the youngest who is the most powerful. While even the older sister of protagonist David lacks them.

In a later introduction, M. John Harrison commented on its appeal to the post-war generation: “They had more in common with each other than with their parents. Their social expectations were raised… they were in possession of a new language… the generation gap was opening up.”

(Wyndham had gone to the ‘progressive’ public school Bedales, which a couple of generations later would be pretty much the type of background the leaders of the Sixties counter-culture came from.)

This being post-nuclear world where only the margins remain inhabitable it’s set in Labrador, Northern Canada. Or a version of it. Much is made of this being Wyndham’s only work to have a fantasy setting. But what that really means is that it’s not set in contemporary South-East England. If strictly speaking it has no real-world equivalent it’s a setting we quickly recognise from elsewhere. It’s a Western, just one where the past-the-border badlands is populated by mutants rather than outlaws. Strictly speaking, it’s Western crossed with a pioneer town of devout Puritans as in ’The Crucible’ (1953). But the two mingle easily enough, especially to us British readers.

Labrador is more Kanas than Oz. And the abnormal, after all, only has meaning in relation to the normal, the mutation to the standard.

Now, you may be about to say that Science Fiction is almost always relabelled Westerns. But this isn’t Flash Gordon, shootouts against a more exotic backdrop. It’s very much set in a material world where people till their own soil, fix their own carts, and hunt with bows and arrows (plus the occasional primitive gun).

And this makes the introduction of telepathy juxtapositional, as strange an interruption to this world as it would be to ours. The adults are obsessed with rooting out ‘deviation’ (as they call mutation) but spend much of the novel looking for it in the wrong place, outer rather than inner, getting all het up over an extra toe. (The novel is somewhat fuzzy over when the young folk first recognise their powers will count as deviation.)

Added to which, telepathy is the only one of the Tomorrow People’s three T’s to be incorporated. And here it means just mind-talk, no mental control or powers of suggestion. There’s a narrowing of unbelievable things, until there’s only one asking to be believed. Which is itself subject to material constraints, a point reiterated even if they’re hazily defined.

”The Shortcomings Of Words"

At the same time telepathy isn’t just phone calls without phones. Telepathy is qualitatively different, a higher form of communication…

“Even some of the things he did not understand properly himself became clearer when we all thought about them.”

Unlike all those other Ts, telepathy only works as a group power. Telepaths can only contact other telepaths. And this ‘thinking-together’ is about the young folk’s ability to immediately put their heads together, similar to Brian Eno’s dictum “everyone is smarter than anyone.”

But it’s more than that…

“I don’t suppose ‘normals’, who can never share their thoughts, can understand how we are so much more part of one another. What comprehension can they have..? Wwe don’t have to flounder among the shortcomings of words; it is difficult for us to falsify or pretend a thought even if we want to: on the other hand, it is almost impossible for us to misunderstand one another.”

We’re told that pre-apocalypse people "were shut off by different languages and different beliefs”, suggesting telepathy is a universal language that will by its nature overcome such divisions. True, there’s limits to this. We’re also told no-one can know David’s love interest Rosalind as well as him, even the other telepaths. But its simultaneously suggests that telepathy enables them to achieve a higher form of love, much as van Vogt did in ’Slan’.

Wyndham’s ‘big three’ novels are surely this, ’Triffids’ and (coming up) 'The Midwich Cuckoos’. Yet while the others have been adapted multiple times, this has only had a 1981 radio version. And surely a main reason is the difficulty of visualising this ‘thinking-together’.

As with ‘The X-Men’, their powers are essentially given a double explanation. Ostensibly they’re mutations due to post-nuclear radiation. But it would be hard not to see teleological evolution’s hand here too. And, as with the X-Men, these two explanations seem rather shoehorned together. In something closer to a ‘serious novel’ than a four-colour comic, where we might expect better.

But they perform different tasks. The first is diegetic and plot-functional, to give the adults a reason to fear the children. The second is more symbolic, closer to a metaphor even within the story. To quote Harrison again: “Telepathy in fiction is often a metaphor for communication, for empathy, for an open style of human relationship.”

For ‘thinking-together’ is set against a society predicated on conformity. (“The more stupid they are, the more like everyone else they think everyone ought to be. And once they get afraid they become cruel and want to hurt people who are different.”) Labrador becomes a caricature of the ordered, rule-bound world of the Fifties, of strictly enforced dress codes and table manners, where the over-riding requirement is to fit in.

And further to Harrison telepathy is also something of a metaphor for the reading experience, symbols placed in your head across a distance, showing you things as others see them, accessing what can feel like a higher level of space. And it can feel that others who don’t seem to get the same experience from reading as we do are in some way missing a sense, are mere norms.

”Condemned to negatives”

As with ’Slan’, the narrator occupies different ages as the novel progresses, giving different ages groups their own opportunity to plug in. And the notion that they equalled stasis while we represented change, that went on to become a very counter-culture concept. The Jefferson Airplane song ’Crown Of Creation’ (1968) wasn’t just inspired by the book, most of its lyrics were barely modified quotes from it. To them it meant generation-war militancy. While its argument may boil down to a credo coined by Frank Zappa: “Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.”

But other readings were available. Philip Womack, writing in the Guardian, said:

“I first read ‘The Chrysalids’ when I was 12, an age when any child is beginning to wonder about where he or she fits into the world…. Wyndham's evocation of David's ability… left me reeling with envy and desire; I remember sitting in the library, ‘sending out’ thoughts in the hope that someone, somewhere might catch them.”

The novel’s predicated on breaking away from your elders and their narrow world. David’s parents are the wicked step-parents of fairy tales, in every way apart from them literally being step-parents. They beat him if he’s bad, and lecture him not to be bad if he’s not currently being bad. In general, bar one kindly Uncle, the adult characters only exist insofar as they intrude on the young’s lives, a sense enhanced by the first-person narrative. Which may well be the way you do view adult authority figures when young.

Plus the Fringes provide an evil Uncle, effectively giving us two versions of ‘bad Dad’. They make up the types of Abraham and Cronos, the authoritarian unyielding rule-giver and the malevolent monster who’d destroy his son to steal his girlfriend from him. At twelve we might be more wary of Abraham, feeling these confines are strictures are there to mould us into his own image, prevent us growing into our own person. And notably it’s the older David who encounters the evil Uncle.

Further, when young we often do lead a double life which in a way makes us two selves, acting differently at home with our parents to out with our peers. And it can be easy to imagine one is your true unsullied self, the other an act.

So life in Labrador is in upshot presented as entirely and explicitly negative, a place to flee:

“We had a gift, a sense which should have been a blessing but which was little more than a curse. The stupidest norm was happier; he could feel that he belonged. We did not, and because we did not we had no positive - we were condemned to negatives, to not revealing ourselves, to not speaking when we would, to not using what we know, to not being found out - to a life of perpetual deception, concealment and lying. The prospect of continued negativeness stretching out ahead.”

The early section of the novel read like a ticking clock, a countdown to when they’ll need to go on the run. Whereupon they have to stay ahead of pursuers while awaiting the arrival of Sealand, a telepathic community they’ve managed to make contact with. So Sealand give regular status updates on their rescue, a cross between the Seventh Cavalry and Deliveroo. And in these communications it’s specified how superior Sealand feel to mere norms.

When they do show up, inevitably for the finale, it’s effectively in the form of a UFO. Which again seems uncannily prescient of imagery running through hippie culture, the “silver spaceships” of Neil Young’s ’After The Gold Rush’, the tall Venusians of David Bowie’s ’Memory of a Free Festival’ or (them again) Jefferson Airplane’s ’Have You Seen the Saucers?’ (all 1970).

Their weapon to subdue the norms is a petrifying web, surely a metaphor for the rigidities of their stifling culture. Which might at first appear a mere incapacitant, the humane method of a superior culture. The equivalent of the Tomorrow People’s stun guns, weapons without violence. But this seems done just to later inform us its effects are fatal.

The final chapter’s then given over to the Sealand woman justifying this, in a not dissimilar way to Dr. Vorless calling time on morality in ’Triffids’. Her argument seems to boil down to “it’s okay to kill a thing already dying”. In one of the passages quoted by Jefferson Airplane, she says: “in loyalty to their kind they cannot tolerate our rise; in loyalty to our kind, we cannot tolerate their obstruction.” The seemingly tangential ‘fighting cocks’ cover, not a thing which appears in the book, is presumably designed to represent this. And notably, the one good Norm - kindly Uncle Axel, who would make a more inconvenient corpse, disappears from the narrative before his point.

And, as we may be used to by now, this homo superior business is justified by reference to teleological evolution:

“Did you ever hear of the great lizards? When the time came for them to be superseded they had to pass away.”

The argument is not “there was conflict, the situation became them or us”. The argument is, and quite specifically, “this evolutionary path ain’t big enough for the both of us.” Which, frankly, seems less evolution than eugenics. For one thing, the dinosaurs most likely died as a result of a cosmic accident rather than some grand plan, and besides some reptiles - including fairly big ones - survived to this day. Life on Earth is made of a combination of ancient and more recent species, like you’d expect. For deviation from the norm does not in fact necessitate killing the norm. But the unspoken element of her argument is “we get to say what is dying.”

Which is not something unusual with the Pariah Elites trope. As we saw, in Sturgeon’s ‘More Than Human’, a human character who serves a similarly thwarting plot function is casually killed just to sweep her off-stage. But here the dead don’t even get counted. It’s not the most fannish but the most mainstream instance of this trope which is the most indifferent to loss of life, as soon as it can be labelled ‘norm’ or ’old’.

This sense of generational conflict as something perpetual and innate in human society, it’s very reminiscent of the Futurist manifesto. The Sealand woman’s explanation that one day they too will be replaced finds it’s fore-echo in 1909:

“When we are forty let younger and stronger men than we throw us in the waste paper basket like useless manuscripts..! They will crowd around us, panting with anguish and disappointment, and… will hurl themselves forward to kill us. ...And strong healthy Injustice will shine radiantly from their eyes. For art can only be violence, cruelty, injustice.”

And like the Futurist manifesto you can’t deny the heady excitement of the appeal. While being at the same time aware that this is Social Darwinism speaking.

This was the bullet ’The Tomorrow People’ had wished away through a conspicuous display of performative niceness. ("We're superior, we just don't like to say so.") ’The Chrysalids’ takes it head-on, effectively painting a target on its own chest. And it doesn’t help in the slightest. We just move straight on, as if it hadn't happened, to get to the happy ending.

The very concept of ‘thinking-together’, which binds the book, bakes this in. We can communicate at a higher level, go on to create a better form of living. But not with you. It seems likely that one of the main reasons to give this book its foreign setting was to avoid showing the menfolk of a quaint English village getting it in the neck. The counter-culture notion that we can frolic off into a perfect future, just as soon as we’ve bumped off those troublesome squares, that was already there in 1955.

Saturday, 22 July 2023


(Beware, triffid-size PLOT SPOILERS ahead, ready to lash out at you!) 

“In an environment reverting to savagery it seemed that one must be prepared to behave more or less as a savage…”

Let’s look at this through a Q&A format…

So this novel is now infamous for pioneering the cosy catastrophe? What’s that? 

By law, you cannot discuss John Wyndham’s 1951 novel without using the following Brian Aldiss quote, from ’Billion Year Spree’. I’m going to start off with it, just so I don’t get into any trouble.

“The essence of cosy catastrophe is that the hero should have a pretty good time (a girl, free suites at the Savoy, automobiles for the taking), while everyone else is dying off.”

But so many bad things happen! Bad things can’t be considered cosy.

This one comes up a lot. Yes, bad things happen. A blinded Doctor, realising his situation, asks to be directed to a window then jumps from it, before we’re mid-way through the first chapter. But at the same time post-catastrophe guests are still served “the best brandy”.

Because this objection is - to use the terminology of the day - piffle. ‘Cosy catastrophe’ is two words, and the genre aims not to repress but to exploit the oxymoron. Wyndham makes a point of using real place names throughout, down to specific London streets, each iteration evoking this disjunction.

Similarly, the cover of the 1979 Penguin edition is a remarkably akin to a still from the 1981 TV adaptation. (Widely considered the best.) The sinister plants rear menacingly before a reassuring suburban semi. (Dilapidated in the drawn version, perhaps harder to achieve in a real setting.)

The back cover blurb to the Sphere edition of John Christopher’s ’Death Of Grass’ talks of “civilized values… now as out of place as a dinner jacket is in a slaughter house.” Which may be the most cosy catastrophe passage ever written. Aldiss is using the term in a derogatory fashion, but I don’t think he’d deny any of this.

And our narrating hero Bill Masen exemplifies this. Having no real social ties and a knowledge of triffids, objectively speaking he’s well-placed for all this. As he says: “curiously what I found that I did feel - with a consciousness that it was against what I ought to be feeling - was release…”

So within that juxtaposition, upsides can exist. The rupture is such that some are able to swap their Burtons suits for fine dinner jackets, which they wouldn’t have got to wear any other way, so every cloud…

But Bill also tells us early on …

“This is a personal record. It involves a great deal that has vanished for ever, but I can’t tell it any other way than by using the words we used to use for those vanished things, so they have to stand.”

Now this is almost certainly Wyndham writing the only way he knew, about the only sort of person he knew. It wouldn’t be a huge leap of faith to suggest that he based Masen on himself. But this is just to describe what writers do, turn necessity into invention. And it does create opportunities….

We have precisely the wrong narrator to tell us this sort of thing. And that’s the point, that we understand the true horror of it all will be beyond his powers of description. We’ll only see their shadow. He writes in the inverse, for a future audience to who its our world which needs explaining. (In fact, had I been Wyndham’s editor, I’d have told him to promote that quote from the start of the second chapter and open the book with it.)

What else did Aldiss say?

Glad you asked. He also complained it was…

“…totally devoid of ideas but read smoothly, and this reached a maximum audience, who enjoy cosy disasters.”

Which, despite being the lesser-known quote, is if anything more vituperative. Presumably ‘walking killer plant’ is considered just a trope, the elements so borrowed mere plot mechanisms, and so on. The argument seems to be this is a novel which functions well, but no more. It’s been engineered rather than written, a prototype for mass production.

But ’no ideas’ rests on a somewhat narrow definition of ‘idea’. Yes, there’d been post-apocalypse stories before, but there’d been political dystopias before ’Nineteen Eighty-Four’. And it seems a strange critique for something so stuffed with ethical debates. One chapter, ’Conference’, is literally a formal ethical debate. Wyndham started writing for the pulps, but his style from hereon in was to intersperse dramatic action with pipe-puffing philosophy. His intent, at the very least, was to pack the book with ideas.

Well all of that’s as maybe but, ‘Day of The Triffids’, that’s all about fighting off triffids, surely?

Actually no. It would be cute to say that in the land of the blind, the deadly plant species is now king. But it would be more accurate to say that in the land of the blind people fall out a lot. 

The triffids rarely intrude. Most die from disease. The survivors forget about them in between, and it's clear we readers are supposed to as well. They lurk around the edge of events, strike, and are gone again. If you struck out every scene that referred to them, the book wouldn’t be that much shorter and would still largely function. It might be less memorable, true. But it would still function.

Okay, not triffids then… wait, this being a Cold War novel - the meteor shower that makes almost everyone blind, that symbolises the bomb, right?


Oh, its definitely a Cold War novel. The whole business of the triffids spreading worldwide comes from a botched attempt to smuggle them out of the Soviet Union, a mirror image of the way nuclear secrets were being smuggled West to East. A terrible disaster from which few survive unscathed, that scenario may have already been in use, but the Cold War certainly expedited it.

But the meteor shower would be a very shonky symbol for the Bomb. Of course, looking at a nuclear blast could strike you blind. But that has little to do with its representation in popular culture. Which were more to do with the Bomb instantly vaporising all and sundry. (Think for example of the 1950 Ray Bradbury short story ’There Will Come Soft Rains’, when an automated house keeps working while it’s inhabitants have long since become mere shadows on the wall.)

Besides, the whole point is the way people unknowingly flock to watch the meteors, like a kind of free firework show. It’s less a social disaster we bring upon ourselves, more a personalised disaster that each individual takes their own eyes to.

But most of all, the text brings up the comparison. In order to rule it out.

“From 6 August 1945 [the first bombing of Hiroshima], the margin of survival has narrowed appallingly. Indeed, two days ago it was narrower that it is at this moment… there might have been no survivors, there might possibly have been no planet. And now contrast our situation. The Earth is intact, un-scarred, still fruitful… we have the means, the health, and the strength to begin to build again.”

The whole novel is informed by the Cold War. It couldn’t have been written, at least not the way it is, in the Thirties. But ‘informed by’ is not the same thing as ‘about’.

Oh, for heaven’s sake, what is this novel about then?

Class war.

Come on Gavin, you say everything is about class war.

True. But this is very definitely about class war. A cosy kind of class war, as you might expect. But class war all the same. Rather than Aldiss, it would be better if the quote everyone knew was from John Brosnan in ’The Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction’:

“The atmosphere is rather too cosy; in fact [it] sometimes takes on aspects of a middle-class, rural paradise, what with the disappearance not only of all those smelly cities but also of the working classes.”

True, this may be because he’s not actually talking about ’Day Of the Triffids’, instead its the later TV series ’Survivors’. But it's equally applicable. 

Here’s a sample of dialogue…

“‘Ere we are, gents one an’ all. Piccabloodydiddly Cirucs. The Centre of the World. The ‘Ub of the Universe. Where all the nobs had their wine, women and song.” 

In fact so many ‘aitches are dropped in dialogue, you ‘alf wonder if Wyndham wore out the blinkin’ apostrophe key on his typewriter, guv. This is the head and (literally) the eyes of a rampaging mob speaking, unapologetically after booze and women. Without the good example set by their betters the proles become more prole-like, revert to drunken savagery.

Yet not all of them. Some make a moral argument. Coker insists that now eyes are in short supply they must be rationed out, each sighted person looking after a group of blind. Which contrasts with Doctor Vorless, insisting the only priority is that “the race is worth preserving.” (“Different environments set different standards…. The conditions which framed and taught us our standards have gone with it. Our needs are now different, and our aims must be different.”) And as Corker becomes a literal interlocutor between sighted and blind, so…

“His voice was a curious mixture of the rough and the educated so that it was hard to place him - as though neither style seemed quite natural to him, somehow.”

Vorless and Coker become like two Kings, standing certainly on either sides of the chessboard of London. Each is certain in his proclamations, while everyone else wanders about the board blindly. (Ironically, in the circumstances.)

It’s also noticeable that the two sides in this formal debate stay largely off-page. Coker only appears as a character after this debate has been resolved by events. He admits, in fact he re-appears largely to admit, he was wrong. Vorless, after delivering his set-piece speech, never reappears and never talks directly with Bill.

Is morality merely socially contingent, where new conditions will call for new forms of it to be devised? It’s arguable, to some degree or other. Yet one thing which can clearly exist only in a social context is class. That society collapses and it doesn’t much matter who was a milkman or a merchant banker yesterday. But this book turns this upside down, its conception of class is essentialist just as much as it’s sense of morality is relativist.

Further, while the proles can follow moral guidelines, it’s only the educated elite with their leadership role who must set them. The proles just continue to clutch a rule book that’s lost its relevance, while the educated elite write a new one.

And this confrontation resembles a lock-out, with the workers arguing they have a right to life so it follows they must have a right to work. Bill is later kidnapped and literally shackled to a party of blind people, who he must lead at the same time he’s their prisoner. There seems more than a slight critique of the Welfare state here. The 1942 Beveridge report had promised to slay five “giants”, Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness. All but the last of these now reappear, as facts of life. The surplus proletarians must be allowed to perish.

Much is made of the lead characters having a head versus heart dilemma, wanting Coker to be right while knowing its Vorless. And it may be that, in these circumstances, Coker is wrong. In this situation there is nothing to be gained by prolonging the blinded’s misery.

But then the whole point of this elaborate set-up is to make Coker’s argument wrong, which feels a bit like loading the dice. What use will Supplementary Benefit be if the whole world gets blinded and then killer plants attack? Yeah, good point mate. Better watch out for that one.

And this is the bizarre thing - this formally so innovative novel was in its content not the start but the end of something. The 2005 BBC documentary states the book was begun on Valentine’s Day, 1949, which might seem suspiciously precise. But we do know it was first serialised from January 1951. The novel version then appeared in December that year.

Which was two months after a Tory electoral victory, from which they stayed in power for over a decade. But by that point they had come to accept the changes already made, leading to what was effectively a class truce. The proles agreed to stop rocking the boat so much, and in return the bosses agreed to better seating arrangements.

It’s arguable that times of social upheaval have a tendency to return to Wyndham. 1981 saw a TV version of ’Triffids’, and a radio adaptation of ’The Chrysalids’, followed by a TV version of the later ’Chocky’ in ’84. A period which marked the first term of another long-running Tory government, but this time one intent on tearing up that class truce.

But at the time a novel written on the perils of class war appeared just after a class truce had been called. The bourgeois fear of the immediate post-war years, that we were heading for some Stalinist system, where the Ministry of Tyranny would seize your family heirlooms in the name of the people, that did not transpire. The social fears it channels were already being submerged, as soon as it was published.

So what connection is made between the mass blindness and social class?

There isn’t. Its not referred to in the text in any way. In fact it flatly contradicts what we’re told about the meteors, “everybody’s out watching them.” But it’s there. Now and then we do run into someone posh but blind, so the diegetically unsupportable connection doesn’t seem too clear-cut.

There may be an underlying symbolic one, that we naturally divide between visionary leaders and dutiful followers waiting to hear fresh orders. But its latent at best.

But then what about the Christian camp?

Some claim this book to be a paean to right-wing individualism, the strong surviving by shunning the weak. Perhaps because later iterations of this genre did often overlap with survivalism. And it’s true that Robinson Crusoe, the fictional totem of that thinking, is once referred to.

But in fact Bill decides early it’s a situation you can only hope to live through by joining a group. And the end of civilization proves a handy opportunity for some social climbing. He tries to get with the proper toffs from the side, after seeing (and a chapter’s named after it) ’A Light In the Night’.

From an early point the book is structured as a series of attempts by Bill to find the community they’re founding, but with events conspiring to take him somewhere else. It’s repeatedly explained that it won’t be any kind of panacea even if he can get there, that life there will be harsh, that it may even fail, its just our best shot. Yet at the same time it occupies the same place as utopia often does in fiction, a deferred end goal, always around the next page. And he’s waylaid by first the working and then the middle classes.

True for much of this he’s more after his new-found girlfriend. But then how’s she first described?

“Her clothes, or the remains of them, were good quality. Her voice was good too [and] it had not deteriorated under stress… She looked as if she had strength [which] had most likely not been applied to anything more important than hitting balls, dancing, and, probably, restraining horses.”

She’s from St. Johns Wood. She’s such a society gal she missed the meteor shower by sleeping off a party. And she’s named Josella. I mean, Bill and Josella? Bill’s class climbing is mostly achieved by marrying into the family. And though she’s first encountered in a damsel-in-distress state, overall she adapts to the new normal better than him.

It’s also notable that, as Coker’s gang are limited by their lower class-ness, the Christian camp are led and dominated by women, and thereby beset by all that emotionalism they inevitably exude. They can’t hook the lights up because they don’t understand machines, so instead darn by candlelight. True, Josella is an exception to this. But then she’s a proper toff.

It’s quite surprising how much this conventional morality is specified as Christian. At least they insist on this, and no-one contradicts them. Which is close to saying Christianity now needs to be jettisoned, and (at least in the novel) that this point is unarguable even if people persist in arguing about it. Which must have seemed heady stuff back then.

But Wyndham doesn’t depict religion, at least organised religion, positively. He might well mark the point where the implications of Darwinism finally superseded a more static Christian morality. Notably, all three of his best-known books quite centrally feature evolution.

Okay, so what connection is made between the meteor storm and the triffids? 

There isn’t. The triffids are already in place prior to the meteor storm. And throwing both into the mix does seem to be over-egging it. You’re half tempted to ask if the Loch Ness Monster showed up at the same time. And this is made somewhat worse by the association, where the Triffids strike to blind.

Adaptations, perhaps unsurprisingly, see this duality of the disasters as a plot hole to be filled in. The 1963 film, for example, has triffid spores arriving with the meteor shower. (Something explicitly ruled out in the book.) There’s also a fan theory that the triffids called it down, in some unspecified way. (Which, like many a fan theory, is baseless.)

But what this does in terms of tidying up the plot regularises the content, standardises everything. Much of the appeal is that no-one knows very much about the triffids, how smart they are, whether they can even communicate. As Josella says, “they’re so different!” And this unknowing adds to their menace. The triffids are there precisely so we can’t understand them, and much would be undone by saying more.

As Miles Link says: “The triffid is not simply the negative image of what bourgeois post-war life values: it does not merely connote collectivity rather than identity, or evolutionary shift rather than stability. Instead, the triffid cancels the order upon which those values are built.”

In other words, we cannot just attach our negative words to them, for we cannot attach any words to them. They’re beyond our terms of reference, and this is precisely what makes them horrific. (NB I don’t always agree with Link’s analysis, but do here.) This means Wyndham can’t place them centre stage and use them as he wants. So he doesn’t.

(Were I Wyndham’s editor I might have suggested the meteor storm somehow activated the triffids, making them mobile, more motivated, more poisonous or similar. I wasn’t Wyndham’s editor.)

However, if not an connection there is an association, which we’ll come onto later…

Okay, this being ‘Day Of the Triffids’, what do the triffids represent? Surely something!

There’s no shortage of theories, but few convincing ones. Aldiss again: “Either it was something to do with the collapse of the British Empire, or the back-to-the-land movement, or a general feeling that industrialisation had gone too far.”

Taking up the first of these, Jerry Maata has described them as “distorted metaphors for the colonised people of the British Empire, coming back to haunt mainland Britain much as the Martians did in Wells.”

The Wells comparison is odd. His Martians weren’t colonial subjects out for revenge but greater colonisers, bigger kids who came to pick on us just as we had the Tasmanians. Perhaps the idea is that the triffids are more like Zulus, seeming primitive push-overs who turn out to be tougher than they looked, speaking their own inscrutably private language. The analogy’s insulting, of course, but that scarcely seems a reason to deny it.

But Josella has already pointed out the flaw here. The triffids are too otherly, too de-anthropomorphised, for this to stick. It’s the same problem as explicitly granting them sentience. It doesn’t convey what they represent, it takes it away. You don’t gain stuff, you lose stuff.

Aldiss’ second and third suggestions really run together, and run into the other big theory, ’Nature’s revenge’. This might seem to be almost explicitly ruled out. We’re told “one could not even blame nature for them,” because they’re “the outcome of ingenious biological meddlings.” And yet… it’s suggested the meteor storm itself wasn’t the problem, but it striking a satellite containing some chemical weapon that causes blindness. Or later, that a satellite malfunctioned into disgorging it’s cargo, and everyone took it for a meteor storm.

And satellites were at this point science fiction, the first successful launch not until six years after publication. (Placing the book in an odd interchange where satellites and cinema newsreels coexist.) Wyndham has to explain to readers what they are. So what we have is a mixture of our hubris bringing us down, and nature getting pissed off with being meddled with and so meddling back.

“The countryside is having it’s revenge, all right… It rather frightens me. It’s as if everything were breaking out. Rejoicing that we’re finished, and that it’s free to go its own way.”

And the significant thing there it that it’s the countryside getting its own back, with the triffids just its strike force.

People today sometimes scoff at attempt to make plants scary, as if back then you could scare an audience with hydrangeas. And it is true that most of its inheritors went for zombies, seeking to up the scary stakes. As Aldiss (yes, back to him!) said “the catastrophe novel supposes that one starts from some kind of established order, and the feeling grew that even established orders were of the past.” The obvious example is ’28 Days Later’, which borrows heavily from the book in terms of form, but takes it mood more from ’Night Of the Living Dead’. Its classic quote is:

“This is what I've seen in the four weeks since infection: people killing people. Which is much what I saw in the four weeks before infection, and the four weeks before that, and before that, as far back as I care to remember - people killing people. Which, to my mind, puts us in a state of normality right now.”

But was abandoning plant life a necessity? Making the triffids scary, that’s more a problem for the adaptations than the book itself. Wyndham refers to how the perambulating plants were first seen as comical, but came to be feared - a change more easily conveyed in print. Even the cover illos can struggle with this. The 1954 depiction isn’t just literally bollocks, the design suggests at it teaming up with the Penguin on the logo.

However, when Wyndham perambulated plants he also stuck a snake in them. He calls it a whorl, but it’s effectively the same. Like snakes, they’re slow to move but quick to rear and strike. Which is just the way some illustrators depict them, such as the Eighties edition below. (See a gallery of Triffid covers here.) 

Mostly this objection suggests that we spend less time with plants today than people used to. Wyndham’s original inspiration was walking down a country lane in near-dark, sided by looming hedges. And it’s true up to today that our life on earth is only through nature’s sufferance. There are actual plants aplenty which are poisonous to touch. The one thing they can’t do is walk. But weeds can grow like wildfire, so fast it seems they’re effectively moving, taking over space as soon as your back’s turned.

Take the 1971 Genesis track ’Return of the Giant Hogweed’, which clearly riffs on the triffid trope, but is based on a real-life plant which genuinely came from Russia, genuinely came to be invasive and is genuinely toxic to us. The lyrics, especially when married to the martial-style music, suggest the plants are mobile without ever explicitly confirming it. (“Botanical creature stirs! Seeking revenge…”)

The novel describes how the triffids can withstand extensive damage, like trees. And in this way it may have been prescient. Just when we thought we had nature on the run, that would be time for it to strike. Don’t take your eye off the back garden just yet…

Coming soon! After this brief digression into other things Wyndham, back to the Pariah Elites…